Spotlight on Summer Conference

Amulya Vadapalli, T'19

My experience on the second day of the summer school reading the same text with five other people, but receiving five simultaneously different interpretations perfectly encapsulates my experience at the summer school - a multilayered encounter I’m still unravelling. As a Public Policy and Middle Eastern Studies major, I’m often questioning and understanding the role of religion in public life. Through the summer school, I’ve learned to better grapple with these concepts by dissecting my own preconceived definitions of religion and public life. Through my conversations with the Israeli students I was exposed to how religion can be public life, by listening to the Egyptian student at the conference, I learned how cross religiosity in the form of Quran recordings can permeate public spaces, and each day in class, listening to lectures on the New Testament, the Quran and the Torah, I added another piece to my understanding of religion in the world. In this way, the conference and the summer school have brought to me new understandings I take back with me to Duke - even changing the nature of the phrase “don’t take it as gospel”. 

Cassandra Appiah-Ofori, T'19

In the past, many conversations in which I have partaken at Duke relating to religion, or any other polarizing topic, become very accusatory where people feel the need to defend themselves rather than listen—one person forming their next thought while the other is still speaking, immediately trying to disprove or attack what someone else has said, etc. A lot of these conversations involve the use of “how dare you think like that?” or “how dare you say such things?”  It is quite frustrating and tiring for one to be involved. For a long time I’ve wanted to participate in a program like the Leipzig summer school, which fostered the opposite of the scenario described above.

I was so grateful and excited from the first day of the Leipzig summer school because it was evident that the participants were simple there to learn, listen, and share their thoughts. I appreciated the different minds present—scholars, historians, theologian, students—who all came together with the sole purpose of learning and listening to one another. What I love the most was that although the participants of the summer school were of different faiths, or no faiths, this was never an obstacle in our discussions. Instead, we were all there with the mentality that we could gain something from one another that we didn’t know when we came into the school. 

I also appreciated how we were encouraged to de-familiarize ourselves with the faiths to which we adhered or the faiths about which we knew the most. This allowed for further exploration and learning. I loved the maturity and scholarship that everyone approached discussions about the different cannons of the three faiths, the historical context in which these cannons were formed, and so much more!

When I go back to Duke, I hope to take the same eager spirt of learning (and listening) back to my classrooms. I want to contribute positively to conversations, similarly to the examples I saw at the summer school. Because of the summer school, I am better able to discern productive conversation which foster learning above all else. 

Kate Watkins, T'19

The Leipzig 2018 Summer School allowed me to explore interests outside of my undergraduate program of study that I would never have dreamed of at Duke. We discussed changing notions of canonicity, discussed how scriptures are differently perceived in the normative religious practices of the three major Abrahamic religions, and learned about how the addition of punctuation profoundly affects the meaning religious authorities derived from the written Torah and the mushaf (written Qur’an). Although I did not understand every concept introduced by our diverse speaker panel, I enjoyed being challenged to reshape my received ideas of what constitutes satire, holiness, worship, and interfaith dialogue. As I go back to campus, I will introduce these complexified ideas about religious normativity into my conversations with friends involved in religious life in an effort to learn more about religious traditions apart from my own. Much thanks to the Duke Jewish Studies department and Religions and Public Life at the Kenan Institute for sponsoring the conference and allowing a couple Duke students to dream up new ways to frame religion praxis!

Peace Lee, Graduate School '20

Both INIRE’s conference and summer school program were deeply enriching and full of resources.  It was a true gift to encounter religion scholars whose faith deeply informed their own scholarship and pedagogy.  As a doctoral student, the conference portion of the program was stimulating and I was introduced to innovative research that I would not have known otherwise.  I will be drawing from  Dr. Caroyn Sanzenbacher’s important research which traces anti-Semitic discourse throughout the history of Christendom. 

What I am especially thankful for and what truly distinguished this conference and summer program with its interreligious and interfaith commitment was that INIRE actually integrates lived experiences and practices to its program.  We not only participated in seminars and academic discussion  but also read and sang sacred texts together, broke bread together, and worshiped together.  We each experienced the grace of being received into religious traditions not our own and those who took the opportunity to do so have been deeply blessed.  It was the integration of theory and practice, learning and living together that makes this program truly meaningful and I am grateful for the visionary faculty and staff for their hard work and commitment.

Armani Porter, Graduate Student '21

Attending the Summer School, Normative Religious Traditions and their Authority, has been one of the most influential periods of my intellectual growth.  My background lies mainly in Catholic theology; thus, this was the first time that I was able to study Abrahamic religions in conjunction.  Doing so, within the context of a contemporary perspective, was particularly formative as it allowed me to see more clearly the connection between modern religious doctrine/tradition and current socio-political attitudes. My time in Leipzig further reinforced my academic enrichment as the time spent with students and professors (both religious and secular) allowed me to further understand not only the interplay between religion and culture within Germany, but also within a Western European context. As one who wishes to combine interests in religion and law, my time in Leipzig has allowed me to create a foundation that will continue to support my future pursuits, both legal and academic.

Ian Mills, Graduate School '22

The theme of the International Network of Interreligious Research and Education’s annual conference and summer school was “Normative Religious Traditions and their Authority.” Conversation and presentations centered around how various texts in the abrahamic religions were used as authorities. While lectures on interpretive traditions reflected in the Quaran and competing ecumenical councils in the Middle Ages were particularly instructive, the highlight for me was an afternoon dedicated to discussing a single story in the Talmud. The passage portrayed God defending to Moses the legitimacy of novel interpretations of the Torah with tenuous textual justifications. This tradition’s openness toward doctrinal innovation alongside a textual conservatism is a fascinating analog and counter-point to my own work on the editing and re-writing of scripture. The chance to discuss these issues  with a diverse group of religious practitioners and scholars will inform my on-going study of theologically motivated textual practices.

Elsa Costa, Graduate School '21

This summer school exploded many familiar dichotomies (eg letter/spirit, oral/written, canonical/deuterocanonical) of which I had long been suspicious but to which I had no strong intellectual-historical counterproject. Dr. Zohar Maor’s talk suggested latter-day Jewish deployments of personalism against historicism which nonetheless took cues from modern (and Protestant Christian) philosophy, while Professors Hartwig and Abu-Sway spoke about the historical development, often mediated governmentally, of an oral Quran merely documented in letters. These accounts of practices which in a Christian context might be read as compromise with secularity forced me to expand my consideration of religion past a reductive pre-/post-Reformation dichotomy, although if I had any contribution to the discussion it had to do with the effects of the Protestant Reformation on Abrahamic religion generally. During and after the Saturday morning synagogue service Dr. Hilda Nissimi explained Jewish liturgy in detail, probably the highlight of the week for me. Repeatedly she contrasted the Jewish prerequisite of ten men for Sabbath service with the Christian centrality of the relationship between priest and believer. Her pointed question (“doesn’t it look like the Jews worship the scroll?”) towards the end raised questions about Judaism’s and Christianity’s divergent schemata for mediation. In general it might even be said that the three Abrahamic religions distinguish themselves by their foregrounding of the personal, written or oral in their account of canonical mediation. I had not considered this and it has potential for my work in intellectual history both as a heuristic and, presuming caution on my part, as a form of shorthand. What ties the religions’ versions of canonicity together? I am skeptical of the Gödelian empirical defense of traditionalism which ran through the conference, Scholem’s dictum that truly holy texts are identifiable by their infinity of interpretations, but I have no superior model. We can’t get to revelation from infinity, but infinity (or the lesser infinities of human interpretation) as an aspect of revelation may still be a useful descriptive tool, one which I deployed in my undergraduate work and may yet revisit.

Luke Olsen, Graduate School '20

“Normative Religious Traditions and their Authority,” International Network for Interreligious Research and Education (INIRE) Conference and Summer School, Universität Leipzig, 7/23-7/29

The INIRE Annual Conference and Summer School were held concurrently this year at the University of Leipzig. The conference began on Monday afternoon and finished Tuesday evening. The Summer School ran from Wednesday to Sunday. The theme for the conference and summer school this year was “Normative Religious Traditions and their Authority.” The host and main organizer was Alexander Deeg, professor of homiletics and practical theology of the theology faculty at the University of Leipzig. Some effort was made to make this a truly interreligious dialogue, though Protestant (Lutheran) Christians were best represented. There were a number of Jewish participants-- of whom I think about half would identify as Orthodox and half would identify as secular. There was one Muslim participant. Unfortunately Imam Mustafa Abu-Sway was unable to join us. Dirk Hartwig from the Corpus Coranicum gave some informative and very popular lectures about the Qur’an and the Mushaf.  There were also some non-Protestant Christians-- Orthodox, Catholic, and Coptic. A few participants did not expressly identify with any of the Abrahamic religions.

The week was packed. Often events would begin around 9 in the morning and not conclude until after dinner. Every night of the week I went with some group of students to one or another local brauhaus, of which-- happily -- there are many in Germany, to continue discussions. This friendly environment, promoted by the warm welcome given to us from the students and organizers at the University of Leipzig, was one of the best aspects of the conference. I particularly enjoyed getting to know Svi and Omer, two of the graduate students from Bar Ilan University with whom I spent a lot of my free time in the city.

The lecture and paper topics were wide-ranging, though all loosely (some more than others) accorded to the conference theme of traditions and authority. Though “Normative Religious Traditions and their Authority” need not necessarily be about texts, there was an emphasis on textual traditions and the construction of canon. This emphasis seemed organic and, I think, reflected the Lutheran commitment to scripture. Indeed, Alexander Deeg framed the opening of the conference with a discussion of sola scriptura. I think it is fair to say that a general question of the conference -- at least for Christians-- was how to think about scripture as authoritative in light of the failure of sola scriptura as a normative authority. Implicit in this question is the question of interpretation: how do we interpret texts and how do these interpretations norm our religious life and experience? Does one interpretive community or institution have coercive or legislative authority? Or does the normative authority of interpretive communities arise organically and democratically? A related question which many of us -- Christians, Muslims, and Jews -- asked was in what sense we can speak of texts having their own implicit authority, and does such authority depend on internal or a historical unity?

Perhaps the intellectual highlight of the conference for me was a conversation with Alexander Deeg during a barbecue on Wednesday evening. I had asked Dr. Deeg what role he felt authority played in, especially, Protestant-Christians interpretation of Scripture and how he reconciles his own authoritative position as a professor of theology and as an ordained minister. This led to a very interesting and fruitful discussion of how Christian may think about the authority of Scripture and the role of the minister-priest in Christian worship. We discussed my sympathy with Catholicism’s more robust, episcopal authority structure and his desire for more democratic, local interpretive communities. We agreed that in both instances, the question of authority is inescapable. Despite our different perspectives, we found much to agree on in our discussion of the role of Scripture in Christian liturgy. I think Catholic homileticians have something to learn from the seriousness with which Lutheran preachers take their task. Similarly Lutherans may learn something from the Catholic representation of the Word of God in the Eucharistic offering which unfolds in the dramatic liturgy of the Mass. We agreed that Christian worship must invite the worshipper to experience, participate in, and perhaps enact the authority of Scripture.

As I consider my own research coming out of the conference I am especially aware of the seriousness and inescapability of this question of authority. It is naive to think we can somehow bracket this question or otherwise avoid it. Authority is not especially popular, I think, in the western academy today. Though, of course, authoritative claims are made, they are often made in the name of kindness and justice. Authority as such is problematic and the exercise of it in interpretive communities is often associated with traditions of structural violence and marginalization. (And, it must be said, this association is often correct). So our discussion about authority is often a discussion of how marginalized readings, communities, or traditions are excluded from normativity. These conversations are necessary and important. Yet I feel they have become constitutive of our discussions of authority as such. And so authority, it seems, comes to be understood as necessarily pernicious and to be resisted. Thus the great appeal of post-structuralism and the democratic endlessly iterating interpretive communities. Democracy allows us to have a more modest, organic authority. 

I think there is much here with which one may sympathize-- not least the legitimate desire to resist authorities whose norming of traditions, texts, and language leads to practices which violate those bodies which (for whatever reason) do not fit the normative construction. (The conference’s location in East Germany underscored this point. So too did our journey to the Holocaust memorial in Leipzig and to the problematic Völkerschlachtdenkmal, from which the this picture was taken). And yet, I’m afraid that in this discussion we elide important differences. Furthermore, I lack confidence  in so-called democratic institutions as a sort of better, friendlier alternative to more hierarchical authority. Of course if hierarchical authority is necessarily naughty, a democratic authority is preferable to a sort of interpretive anarchy. However, as we know from history, democracy does not preclude the abusive use of power and sometimes enables new and creative abuses of power. Consider, for instance, how deep structural violences are often masked in democratic systems. It seems to me that as we think about normative religious traditions and their authority it may be better to push against the Protestant tendency to construe hierarchical, episcopal religious interpretive authority as necessarily corrupt or abusive. This is difficult in the current intellectual atmosphere that is (rightly) very suspicious about claims to normative authority which, we often assume, do violence to the non-normative. Still I think a more robust concept of authoritative normative interpretation of texts and tradition may enable us to better acknowledge and pursue what is true, good, and beautiful.